By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 7, 2005
Mike Sellers was a junior college dropout, sitting at home in Washington state and taking care of his sick mother, when a chance to play pro football for a living first beckoned. The Edmonton Eskimos made him the youngest player in Canadian Football League history at 19. Sellers was signed by the Washington Redskins in 1998, and started his first NFL game when he was 23
It seemed like a golden story. Sellers did things he never thought possible and entered a lifestyle of excess previously unimaginable. But, by the time he was 27, he had given it all away. He was back in the CFL, spiraling professionally and personally, an NFL pariah after facing felony drug charges during his tenure in Cleveland. Two trouble-free seasons in Winnipeg helped repair his image, the drug charges were dropped, and NFL scouts rediscovered an athlete who could still play the game.
When the Redskins came calling again in 2004, Sellers rejoiced, and he is poised for a much bigger role now, finally at ease with a complex offense, even catching a crucial touchdown pass in Sunday's 20-17 overtime defeat of Seattle, his hometown team.
Now, at 30, he is focused on making the most of what may be his last opportunity, and avoiding the pitfalls of his past. Thus far, his second stint in the NFL has been nothing like before; no arrests, no outlandish remarks and no controversy, with Sellers assuming a leadership role on the Redskins, particularly on special teams.
"I'm a totally different person off the field now than I was when I first got here," Sellers said. "There was just a lot of growing up I had to do. I've been playing pro ball since I was 18, and I just kind of stayed in that immature stage for too long. And now I'm older, I'm 30 now, and it was just time to act like a grownup and stop doing all those childish things I used to do. I honestly never thought I was going to be back in this league after what happened to me in Cleveland and being blamed for that stuff. I thought I was done."
In retrospect, there is much Sellers would do differently. He was a three-sport star in high school and the Washington state prep football player of the year. Recruiters deluged him, but Sellers ended up at nearby Walla Walla Community College. He never took the SAT exam, ensuring a circuitous path to the NFL.
"I could have gone to school anywhere, but I guess I thought I was something special," Sellers said. "I just thought I didn't have to take my SATs, and I've got all these big colleges -- I won't name any names -- telling me, 'Don't worry about it, you won't need it.' Then it comes down to it, and I've got to worry about it, and it's too late."
After one season at Walla Walla, Sellers returned home to care for his mother, who died last year, and figured his football career was over -- until a scout from Edmonton called. Sellers played in the CFL from 1995 to 1997, dominating as a fullback and shining as a defensive end (three sacks in 1996). That caught the attention of the NFL, and Sellers chose the Redskins.
It was a tumultuous tenure. The team largely underachieved, Sellers was convicted of DUI in 2000, made derogatory comments about ownership, and was signed by the Browns as a restricted free agent in 2001, a significant step as few restricted free agents change teams. Sellers got a three-year, $2.4 million deal with an $800,000 bonus. It should have been the best time of his life, but things only got worse.
Sellers lasted just nine games with the Browns. The team was already spiraling amid off-field problems, when on Nov. 19, 2001, Sellers and teammate Lamar Chapman were charged with possession of cocaine and "criminal tools" (money and cell phones). Coach Butch Davis initially suspended Sellers for one game, then released him the following week. (Davis said he was happy about Sellers's return to the NFL last year before being fired by Cleveland, saying "Mike's a good kid and he's a very good football player.") Sellers's case had yet to go to trial, and the charges were later dropped, but years of hefty salaries vanished because NFL contracts are not guaranteed. He was damaged goods, and headed back to Canada.
"Word gets around fast," Sellers said. "A lot of it wasn't true, but teams didn't want to take a chance on me, and I respect that, because I put myself in a position I shouldn't have been in in the first place. So I had to deal with the consequences."
He made $70,000 a season in Winnipeg and a clause in his contract prevented a return to the NFL until at least 2004, despite prior interest. "I thought of it as punishment," Sellers said.
Again, the Redskins offered salvation. He worked out for former coach Steve Spurrier as a fullback, but when he signed a one-year deal ($535,000), Joe Gibbs was in charge, and it was time to learn a new position. Gibbs utilizes an H-back, a tight end-fullback hybrid position that requires knowledge of every nuance of the offense, including various blocking schemes, pass routes, running plays and much pre-snap motion. Sellers struggled with it, and, although a special teams standout, he was largely just a lead blocker on short-yardage situations in the offense.
"Last year was a real test for me," Sellers said. "I was trying to do way too much and it worked against me. Now, I'm comfortable in the system, the coaches know I'm pretty confident in it, and I don't think they have any problems with me doing it."
The staff anticipated a lengthy adjustment, and Sellers is now up to speed. Sunday's touchdown was his first since 2001, and matched his reception total from all of last season. At 6 feet 3, 278 pounds, however, and with a thirst for contact, Sellers remains most valuable clearing a path for the running back and smashing people on special teams.
"Any time Mike comes through that hole," tackle Chris Samuels said, "linebackers have to fear him and respect him." And that is what Sellers happens to love. "I'd much rather knock somebody on their [backside] than score a touchdown," he said. "The gratification from putting somebody on their back is a lot more."
The last unconquered goal is to get another carry -- Sellers rushed once, in 2000 -- and he lobbies the staff regularly. "He's a decent runner," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux, who screened some old CFL game film. "We might have to give him a crumb one of these days."
In the meantime, just staying out of trouble and playing NFL football is more than enough for Sellers.
"We try to get him doing the things he really does well," Gibbs said, "and I don't know if there's anybody who does them better than he does. He's a very physical guy; I mean you see him, he's a man. He's a valuable guy for us and I think you need people like that to kind of lead the team -- a guy you know each week is going to do his part. I think he just loves to play football, and I love being around guys like that."